Sarah Smiley explores nature’s intricacies for revealing patterns around and within us
By Cathy Carroll
Artist Sarah Smiley is peering through a small magnifying lens at delicate tendrils extending from a bit of moss and straining toward the light on her desk. She’d plucked the moss from the bank of Whychus Creek, which runs behind her residency studio at the ranch. “Look at how this tiny bit of moss is made of these little triangular forms, like little stars,” said Smiley. Lately her work has evolved and expanded into exploring the relationship to plants, a focus that has sprouted alongside her gardening.
Many of her early paintings explored emotional relationships through the language of basic scientific tools, such as scales, diagrams and other devices developed throughout history, which she found to be fertile for art. During her two weeks in Sisters, she delved into examining patterns in nature, from micro to macro — from moss and seeds to the area’s volcanic landscape and mountains.
“Just having the time to do that has been amazing,” said Smiley, who lives in Los Angeles. For example, Ana Varas, arts projects coordinator for the ranch, brought her to Lava Butte, a 500-foot cinder cone just south of Bend, with expansive views of the area. The crater-crowned formation, littered with tiny rocks, remnants of a lava flow following an eruption about 7,000 years ago, made an impact on the artist who grew up in San Diego.
“It looked so extraterrestrial, like another planet,” said Smiley. “I’ve been using the residency also as an opportunity to look up and to pay more attention to landscape because I also love landscape paintings, and I’ve always wanted to connect the landscape and the mountains, or the bigger ecosystem, to what I’m already interested in — the smaller seed and smaller life. I had already started a garden and then came here with this garden and this big landscape in our backyard.”
The massive lava butte, partly composed of small rocks, was an epiphany for some themes she’s been exploring, including the Sierpiński triangle, with its equilateral shape, subdivided into smaller equilateral triangles. Smiley, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 2012, said she’s also toying with fractals — a repeated pattern at different scales to form a complex shape. In her studio, she experimented with ways of breaking down the fractal to represent the relationship between a fractal pyramid and a mountainscape.
“Intricate construction leads to a new exciting awareness of patterns present around and within us,” according to Smiley. Her work measures the precarious balance inherent in relationships with the external world and the understanding of self. To do this, she uses elements of the natural and human-made world as stand-ins and ways for representing the intimacy within relationships — between friends, family, nature and history, which allows people to feel grounded and understood.
For further inspiration, Varas introduced her to two local botanical artists, Jeanne Debons and Glen Corbett, and each helped stimulate Smiley’s practice. Smiley saw Corbett’s paintings at Hood Avenue Art Gallery in Sisters. “Glen makes these beautiful, super detailed paintings and does these really wild, big wood blocks,” said Smiley. “She was a really great person for me to meet, because she’s operating on both those scales that I’m interested in trying.”
Another influence came from meeting Corbett’s mentor, Debons, who holds a doctorate in botany and plant pathology from Oregon State University as well as a diploma in botanical illustration from the English Gardening School. Debons’ work has been shown in local, national and international exhibitions and has appeared on the covers of multiple books and magazines.
Debons gave practical tips that Smiley employed immediately during her residency, including using small magnifying lenses and a clear tracing frame, which Debons patented.
In her studio at the ranch, Smiley was using the tracing frame for studies of natural objects, such as a pinecone. “You can use this as a way to start your drawing, but it’s also been a good way to abstract forms,” she said.
The intricacies, subtleties and vitality of plant cycles, in parallel to that of the human body and its physical and emotional experience, has guided much of her recent paintings. She primarily paints on cut pieces of paper, often intricately inlaid, which influences the meaning.
Beyond examining plant life at the ranch, Smiley was introduced to the work of Seed to Table in Sisters, which is dedicated to equitable access to locally grown, farm fresh produce and offers farm-based educational opportunities. She volunteered in helping transplant lettuce, thinning plants and setting them out for the cows and sheep.
“It was cool to see a little organic farm working — a small amount of space with quite a system created and producing a huge amount of food,” said Smiley, who grew up gardening with her father. “Everything looked amazing, and I was asking them questions about how they do it.”
The residency also revealed to her the benefits of uprooting herself from her routine, which includes working for the artist David Wiseman, sculpting and slip casting ceramic porcelain flower forms for larger bronze and porcelain sculptures and installations.
She reflected on her experience in Central Oregon as she prepared to leave. “This is really good for me, to be in nature — it made me think I should be living within a beautiful landscape like this,” she said.